* April 1, 1982: New York Mets trade Lee Mazzilli to the Texas Rangers for Ron Darling and Walt Terrell.
I’ve always looked at this trade as a gutsy move by Frank Cashen. In April 1982, Mets fans were still burning over the fact that Tom Seaver had been traded for unproven prospects a few years earlier. I’m not suggesting that Mazzilli was Tom Seaver, but he was a local kid from Brooklyn and the most popular player we had at that time.
Tightest uniform in baseball, the Italian Stallion, Lee Mazzilli. For a few years there, Lee was the face of the franchise, and did us proud in the 1979 All-Star Game — clubbing a pinch-hit, game-tying homer off Jim Kern in the 8th inning. In the 9th, Maz drove in the game-winning run with a bases loaded walk off Ron Guidry. At a time when there wasn’t much to cheer about in Flushing, Lee Mazzilli stood tall. He was stylish, handsome, and homegrown.
Weirdly, Lee was ambidextrous — he threw equally poorly with either hand. With Willie Montanez traded to Texas, and Mookie Wilson a promising prospect waiting in the wings, the Mets decided in 1979 to experiment with weak-armed Mazzilli at first base. He opened the season at first in 1980, but moved back to CF in June. By September, Mookie was brought up for good and Maz shifted back to 1B once again. In 1981, he slid over to LF, struggled with injuries, was unproductive, and watched as his beloved manager and mentor, Joe Torre, was fired. Things for Lee were headed in the wrong direction.
Bottom line: The Mets in 1982 were an awful team, Mazzilli wasn’t that good, and Cashen turned it into a true rebuild. Frank and his scouts had an eye for talent.
You did a good job for us when we discussed the Howard Johnson trade reminding folks how solid of a pitcher Walt Terrell was. And Cashen turned Terrell into the gift that kept on giving by trading him in 1984 for Johnson. That fact made the inclusion of this deal easy. But even without Terrell this is a helluva deal. Ron Darling was a key piece of some of the best teams in Mets history.
Of course, you know the current Mets pitcher who reminds me of Ron Darling, don’t you?
That’s right, Zack Wheeler. People forget that Darling was a nibbler, a guy who walked a lot of hitters. For a while there, anyway. I won’t repeat myself at length, because I made the comparison a while back, but Darling had an awful 4.6 BB/9 ratio in his first full rookie season (1984), and improved to a merely bad 4.1 BB/9 in 1985. Later on, Ron was able to average around 3.0 as he gained valuable ML experience. He usually put up a good won-loss record, but with a lot of no decisions, winning 15 or more games in only 3 seasons with the Mets, with a high of 17 in 1988. We tend to glorify Darling these days, and part of that comes from his superb television work, but he was never a number one. Not everybody can be.
No, when Doc Gooden is around he is your number one. There was never any doubt who the ace was back then. But Darling was an excellent pitcher. In fact in our big year of 1986 Ron finished higher than Doc in the Cy Young award voting, finishing fifth. A fun fact I had forgotten is that Bob Ojeda edged them both out, finishing fourth. That, folks, is how you win 108 games.
But the reason, other than Shallow Hal of course, why I think Darling remains such a fan favorite was his ability in big games. With that mid-1980′s team gelling, there were plenty of those to be played and Ron was usually up to the task. The first that strikes me is the game on October 1, 1985, in St. Louis, when Darling matched John Tudor zero for zero for nine innings. Darryl hit a mammoth home run in the 11th to win that game and keep our playoff hopes alive.
Great call on that Tudor matchup. Everything was on the line and Ronnie came up huge. He had a hell of a World Series in 1986.
Three starts total and Ron threw nothing but zeros in his first two. He did scuffle in Game Seven but we won and by the end of that night nothing else mattered.
Overall, Ron’s numbers never struck me as amazing. Across 9 seasons as a Met, he put up these totals:
- W-L: 99-70
- ERA: 3.50
- GS: 241
- IP: 1,620
I had a few other interesting personal memories regarding Ronnie. One, which I shared once before, is that he threw a complete game three-hitter at Shea while my daughter, Kelly, was being born. And no, folks, I was not at the game. The other comes from Darling’s collegiate career. Being a Queens kid, I had a block full of friends commuting to St. John’s in 1981 and Ron hooked up with another future Met, Frank Viola of St. John’s, in an epic battle that year. Darling went eleven innings without giving up a hit, but St. John’s eventually beat Yale 1-0.
There’s a legendary piece of writing, “The Web of the Game,” by the great Roger Angell — the only writer to whom I sent a fan letter — about that classic pitching duel.
Here’s one section:
The two pitchers held us—each as intent and calm and purposeful as the other. Ron Darling never deviating from the purity of his stylish body-lean and leg-crook and his riding, down-thrusting delivery, poured fastballs through the diminishing daylight. He looked as fast as ever now, or faster, and in both the ninth and tenth he dismissed the side in order and with four more strikeouts. Viola was dominant in his own fashion, also setting down the Yale hitters, one, two, three, in the ninth and tenth, with a handful of pitches. His rhythm—the constant variety of speeds and location on his pitches—had the enemy batters leaning and swaying with his motion, and, as antistrophe, was almost as exciting to watch as Darling’s flare and flame. With two out in the top of the eleventh, a St. John’s batter nudged a soft little roller up the first-base line—such an easy, waiting, schoolboy sort of chance that the Yale first baseman, O’Connor, allowed the ball to carom off his mitt: a miserable little butchery, except that the second baseman, seeing his pitcher sprinting for the bag, now snatched up the ball and flipped it toward him almost despairingly. Darling took the toss while diving full-length at the bag and, rolling in the dirt, beat the runner by a hair.
“Oh, my!” said Joe Wood. “Oh, my, oh, my!”
I love that final image of Darling, diving for the bag, rolling in the dirt. For all his Ivy League smarts, Darling struck me as a tough guy and a gritty competitor. He fit in well with the ’86 team, beer for beer, fight for fight, win after win.
For the full piece, click here.
COUNTDOWN & LINKS TO THE “2 GUYS” TOP 10 ALL-TIME METS TRADES (so far):
- HONORABLE MENTION: Al Leiter
- 10th BEST: Don Clendenon
- 9th BEST: Carlos Delgado
- 8th BEST: Howard Johnson
- 7th BEST: Tommie Agee
- 6th BEST: Jerry Grote
- 5th BEST: John Olerud
- 4th BEST: Ron Darling
That leaves us with room for three more. One omission might surprise you. Can you guess our final 3 in order?